Paul Bogard spends most of his nights looking up. From his home in southern Minneapolis, the sky is fuzzy at the edges, light from the surrounding buildings creeping into the blackness. Bogard stands on the sidewalk beneath an old oak tree and watches the moon rise in the east. Beautiful, but hazy. The trees whisper in the half-darkness as the stars strain to be seen. Sirens wail in the distance. It’s as peaceful as it gets in the city.
It’s hard to believe that just 250 miles north of this murky metropolis lies one million acres of absolute, unspoiled darkness. Here, it’s hard to differentiate between the silhouettes of trees and the sky. But it’s not streetlights that show the difference – it’s stars.
Welcome to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – the largest dark sky sanctuary in the world.
Named in 2020, the Boundary Waters is one of just 16 dark sky sanctuaries across the globe. The International Dark-Sky Association distinguishes these hidden oases for their “exceptional quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment.” Areas like the Boundary Waters are protected for their scientific, natural, and educational value, cultural heritage and public enjoyment. But there’s a catch – most of these places are incredibly isolated. They’re also spread across six continents, with two in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not exactly a day trip.
Bogard, associate professor of English and environmental science at Hamline University, has shaped his career around bridging this gap. He even wrote a book on it – a call to arms, of sorts.
“If you’re younger than 40, you probably don’t know what real natural darkness looks like,” Bogard said. “We’ve grown up with light pollution. We’ve grown up swamped in light.”
There are four types of light pollution, but the most prevalent one is sky glow, when the night sky is brighter over urban areas due to electric lights. That’s right – all that excess light from parking lots, street lights, football stadiums and even our own porch lights has slowly but surely blocked out the night sky. There’s also glare (bright lights in our eyes), clutter (bright lights everywhere, like Times Square) and light trespass (light where you don’t want it, like through your bedroom window). The problem has grown exponentially since the invention of the light bulb. Thanks, Edison.
But how bad is it, really? Well, in 2016, a team of scientists set out to measure light pollution across the world. They looked at how the excess of artificial light from our cities and homes illuminated the night sky, blocking out stars and destroying the natural darkness. It was the first study of its kind, and the results were shocking. They found that 83% of the world’s population and more than 99% of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. Not only that, but the Milky Way is no longer visible to more than one-third of humanity.
Not everyone can drive to the Boundary Waters every time they want to see the stars. And they shouldn’t have to.
“The fact that we need to call these areas ‘protected darkness’ is symbolic of how, all over the world, every place is getting brighter and nowhere is getting darker,” Bogard said. “If we don’t call attention to what’s left of these dark areas, we stand to lose the rest as well.”
The loss of the night sky isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s devastating to not only the ecology of the planet, but our own health as well. It’s the creative deprivation of multiple generations and all those to follow. And the worst part?
It’s totally unnecessary.
Rhythm Of The Night
Let’s start with the obvious. Constant light, just like constant noise, is not conducive to human health. We have places like New York City, which brags about being “the city that never sleeps” like it’s a good thing. We have floodlights and casino lights and skyscrapers bleeding blue. As Bogard says, we are “swamped in light.”
“We use more light than we need, in ways that don’t make us any safer,” Bogard said. “Sending it straight up into the sky where it impacts any flying animal, for example. It’s not doing humans any good.”
According to The National Institute of General Medical Science, this increase in artificial light, whether it’s from our phone or the street lights, disrupts our circadian rhythm – also known as the little ticking clock that keeps us digesting food, releasing hormones and regulating our body temperature. It even affects how well our brain functions. Circadian rhythm relies on cues from our eyes that it’s getting dark out. Then it starts producing melatonin, which helps us go to sleep so our body can repair and restore itself. During deep sleep, the body stores information, lessens inflammation and reduces stress so you wake up refreshed and ready to go.
Guess what happens when artificial light disrupts this process? Risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mood disorders and more goes through the roof. So much so that The International Agency for Cancer Research considers night shifts carcinogenic to humans because of the disruption of circadian rhythms due to artificial light exposure. Now exchange those overhead fluorescents with your phone, and maybe you’ll think twice before that nightly TikTok doom scroll.
But this artificial light swamp we’ve created isn’t just hurting us. It’s hurting the planet, too.
Our light-flooded highways interfere with the natural activities of many mammals. Hundreds of bird species use the stars to navigate, and light pollution drives them off course, causing them to slam into surfaces or circle endlessly. Sea turtle hatchlings move toward the brightest light source to guide them into the sea. That’s supposed to be the moon shining on the waves, but now they head towards bright parking lots and roads. Julie West, communications specialist for The National Park Service, has documented all these impacts and more when it comes to our relentless need to illuminate.
“A naturally dark environment is a vital resource to all living things,” writes West.
That includes us.
Goodbye, Starry Night
The loss of our night sky isn’t just affecting our sleep – it’s affecting our dreams. No, not that weird falling one or the one where your teeth are rotting. Creative dreams, whether that’s writing the next great American novel, building a business or becoming an interactive sculpture artist.
“Time in the darkness is vitally important for creation,” Bogard explained. “It’s time to meditate and for ideas to germinate and grow. Without that darkness, whether metaphorical or literal, we lose something essential from the creative process. We lose the ability to go outside and come face-to-face with the universe, to contemplate our place in creation.”
We already owe so many things to the natural night sky. Without it, we couldn’t have navigated the globe, walked on the moon or discovered that humans are made of stardust. Van Gogh painted “Starry Night,” one of the most famous paintings in the world, from Saint-Rémy, France, in 1889. Now, the Milky Way can no longer be seen from there. It begs the question – how many Starry Nights have we already lost?
A study published by The Library of Medicine frames the loss of our night sky as a values issue. Author Taylor Stone describes how the issue of light pollution is often seen as a series of negatives. We have to reduce this, we’re losing that – it’s a discouraging frame of mind that puts the loss before the potential gain. Researchers, urban planners and lawmakers alike look at the issue and see it as a matter of reducing light pollution instead of increasing natural darkness. Focusing on what we stand to gain places value on the night sky as a resource.
It’s a small but significant difference – in order to tackle the issue of light pollution once and for all, Stone believes we must learn to value the night sky.
Stone quotes Joachim Schlör’s 1998 book Nights in the Big City, where Schlör identifies how light is viewed in Western literature. Light is described as a “triumph” and the dark is an “impenetrable terrain of the nocturnal as an alien region of fear that is conquered and finally subjugated.” He artfully articulates a bone-deep human fancy defined by fear of the night: light is good, dark is bad. And look at the trouble that idea has gotten us into.
This fear of darkness that has inspired so many creative works drives us to eradicate it entirely. We light up our world, thinking it makes us safer, and instead lose a vital part of being human.
Safety in the Stars
But maybe it’s not our fault. After all, humans have evolved to be afraid of the dark. Prehistorically, nighttime was prime for being attacked by predators. But in our modern day and age, fear of the dark looks a lot more like fear of the unknown. In his 2016 journal, Nick Carleton, professor of Anxiety and Behavior Studies at the University of Regina, calls this “the one fear to rule them all.” This fear is the root cause of many anxiety disorders because it signals a loss of control. In terms of the night sky: we fear the dark and what might lurk there, so we light it up in order to control it.
The problem is, lighting up the dark isn’t making us any safer. In fact, in the drive to eradicate the unknown, we’ve created a number of hazards.
“The lights shining straight up into the sky are making no one any safer,” Bogard said. “Neither are the lights shining into your bedroom while you’re sleeping or directly into your eyes as you’re driving.”
Multiple studies have shown that brighter does not mean safer. A Chicago Alley Lighting Project from 2000 actually showed a correlation between brightly lit alleyways and increased crime by 21 percent. A study conducted in England and Wales found that streetlights don’t decrease crime or car accidents – but do cost a lot of money. As the cherry on top, in 2011 The American Medical Association reported that “the glare from nighttime lighting can create hazards ranging from discomfort to frank visual disability.”
Science educator and self-described astronomy entertainer Kevin Poe created a video demonstrating how bright lights can actually help obscure attackers from sight by creating harsher shadows and not letting the eyes adjust to the darkness.
“The bad guys know that the human eye can’t penetrate hard shadows,” Poe explained in the video. “So that’s where you hide and set up an ambush. And of course, the best thing is the psychology. Next to a light, people think they’re safe.”
This fear of the dark disproportionately affects women, who have been taught from a young age by mothers and older sisters that if they go out alone at night, there will be someone waiting for them in the bushes. They will be attacked, they will be raped, they will be killed. It’s these women, who are walking to their cars with car keys as brass knuckles, who fear night the most. They hurry from one pool of light to the next, believing there they will be safe. But we know that’s not necessarily true.
Bogard explained how one of his friends feels like the fear of the dark is something she’s been taught and used as a tool to keep her indoors. It acted as a form of control over her as a woman, so she made a goal of going out to see the full moon every month. She rebelled.
But Bogard believes this problem affects us all.
“At some level we’re all controlled at night, because we’ve been scared into our houses,” Bogard said. “It keeps us from enjoying the beauty of nighttime.”
The solution to nighttime security is not more light – it’s light with purpose. Most outdoor lighting is inefficient – overly bright, poorly targeted, unshielded and often completely unnecessary. Light spills into the sky, rather than onto the ground where it can illuminate what’s needed.
“If we just shielded our lights so they were shining down, we would cut the problem in half overnight,” Bogard said.
The Bright Side
Finally, for the good news. Light pollution is not hard to solve. Of all the forms of pollution – from microplastics to radioactive waste – light pollution is well within our control and doesn’t require major lifestyle changes.
“We just need to help people understand that nobody is talking about going back to the Stone Age,” Bogard said.
Government organizations like Minneapolis Public Works have already started taking action. Their new LED street lights take color, visibility, dark skies and less light trespass into consideration. And they’re not alone. According to The National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 other states are following suit. The most common dark skies policies require shielded light fixtures, which often allows for use of a lower wattage bulb. Other laws restrict the amount of time lighting can be used and the implementation of low-glare bulbs.
Policies like this are becoming more common, but you don’t have to wait for your city government to start taking action. The International Dark-Skies Association provides a guideline for how to assess the lighting on your own property or business. You can even take the smallest steps by turning your phone and laptop to night mode once it gets dark. By changing the color balance of the screen to warmer colors, you can better keep your circadian rhythm in check.
People have the power to restore the night sky above our homes and businesses, from a legislative to an individual level. The first step is to value it. The second is to stop fearing it.
“We think we need to wreak havoc on the natural world and on our bodies and wipe away the stars just to be safe and secure at night,” Bogard said. “But it’s simply not true. We can bring back the stars.”